The Experiment…

“When you think of the long and gloomy history of man, you will find more hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than have ever been committed in the name of rebellion. If you doubt that, read William Shirer’s “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.” The German Officer Corps were brought up in the most rigorous code of obedience. in the name of obedience, they were party to, and assisted in, the most wicked large scale actions in the history of the world “.P. Snow

Much of history is built on good people inflicting harm on others. Whether it was slavery, repression, the holocaust, war, etc., we see good people doing bad things. Which poses the question, why?

Often in life we face choices where morals and core values are saying “no” while society and/or authority is saying “yes.” In response to their innate trust in authority many choose to disregard their own morals, beliefs or inner guidance and “follow the rules/ stay in the lines.”

Sadly, when not in alignment with the authoritarian guidelines, the inner inner battle can be tremendous and if authority wins, the result can be residual trauma, shame, regret, remorse, and emotional or even physical pain.

Why does authority hold such power?

Before we can care for ourselves we are told the way of the world. The first authoritarians who hold a significant influence are parental figures. Being responsible for our survival in the formative years they are given authority to dictate what, when, and how they wish us to behave. Utilizing corporal punishment or by withholding freedom they break our will and force submission. The more you comply with authority the greater the approval and affirmations from those around you. This creates an even larger distrust of your own ability to guide or make decisions for yourself. Fearing you may choose wrong and not be affirmed, you will rely on others to continue to dictate your choices. This is a willing relegation of your freedom to choose. Relinquishing this freedom means reliance on authority.

At an age even before we can remember we have agreed to this system which teaches that we cannot be trusted and are not fit to make our own decisions. This agreement extends into the whole societal structure where we have by agreeing to, we have established “the law of the land.” This gives us definitive boundaries. These parameters limit our choices and cause us to doubt ourselves and our ability to make good choices. This distrust of the self is a sign of a sick society, and the symptoms are anxiety, unworthiness, violence, lust, greed, depression etc.

You would probably be shocked to really understand the extent this authority has control and influence over people’s choices and decisions even when it goes against the most innate, core values that every human being naturally possesses. There is a very revealing and controversial experiment that was done at Yale university in the 60’s. Now, famed social psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted a series of radical behavior experiments that tested ordinary humans’ willingness to obey authority.

While the Milgram study entails acts of aggression against others I would like too note that obedience is not always resulting in harmful outcomes. It can serve numerous productive functions. The entire societal life is predicated on its existence. Obedience may be ennobling and educative and refer to acts of charity and kindness, as well as to destruction.

The Milgram experiment consisted of ordering a naive subject to administer electric shocks to a victim. A simulated shock generator was used, with 30 clearly marked voltage levels that range from IS to 450 volts. The instrument had marked designations that range from Slight Shock to Danger: XXX Severe Shock. The responses of the victim, (person receiving the shocks, who is a trained confederate of the experimenter,) were standardized. The orders to administer shocks were given to the naive subject in the context of a “learning experiment” set up to study the effects of punishment on memory. As the experiment proceeded the naive subject was commanded to administer increasingly more intense shocks to the victim, even to the point of reaching the level marked Danger: XXX Severe Shock. Initially it was proposed that there would be a point that the internal resistance would grow so strong that the subject would refuse to go on with the experiment. The experiment was measuring the behavior prior to the stopping point labeling it as “obedience.” The point of refusal would be labeled the act of disobedience.

Prior to the experiment a poll was taken from several people including 14 Yale senior professors as to whether or not they believed the subject would inflict harm and to what degree…All responded with the belief that no one would follow through with the shocks.

The experiment would surprise everyone. First, the sheer strength of obedient tendencies manifested in this situation was astounding to all that witnessed it. It is a fundamental breach of moral conduct to inflict harm on another person. Yet, all of the subjects followed orders further than their moral guidance wanted to. All forty participants in the study went past the point where the receiver of the shocks screams and begs them to stop and then goes silent as if to show he passed out. None of the subjects checked on the man and 26 out of 40 subjects follow all the way to the very end where they have administered 3 shocks labeled Danger, XXX severe shock. The subjects internal battle was extremely evident. Some showed physical signs like tremors, sweating, trouble breathing yet, with very little prodding to continue administering the shocks they administered the next shock.

They followed the instructions of an authority who has no special powers to enforce his commands. They were already paid for the experiment and told that no matter what happened the money was theirs. If they had disobeyed or abandoned the experiment and refused to harm further they not only would experience no material loss; no punishment whatsoever would ensue. They could just say no and leave.

The remarks and behavior of many participants revealed that the choice of punishing the victim went against their own values. Subjects often expressed deep disapproval of shocking a man in the face of his objections, and others denounced it as stupid and senseless. Yet the majority complied with the experimental commands.

As humans we may wish to believe that our fellow human when put in this sort of position would simply break off or continue as his conscience dictated. Yet, this is very far from what took place in this experiment.

Obedience is a basic element in the structure of social life as we know it. Some system of authority is a requirement of all communal living. Obedience, as a determinant of behavior, is of particular relevance to our time. It has been reliably established that from 1933-45 millions of innocent persons were systematically slaughtered on command. Gas chambers were built, death camps were guarded, daily quotas of corpses were produced with the same efficiency as the manufacture of appliances. These inhumane policies may have originated in the mind of a single person, but they could only be carried out on a massive scale if a very large number of persons obeyed orders. Obedience is the psychological mechanism that links individual action to political purpose. It is the dispositional cement that binds men to systems of authority. Taken from The Behavioral Study of Obedience Stanley Milgram Yale University

Our lives looked at through the lens of obedience would reveal that many of us choose to act everyday in suffrage or sacrifice. We follow the guidance of those whom we have given authority. Deeming suffering as a term that equates to worthiness, we use words like “Have to,” as we wake up early, go to bed late, miss out on things that are important or enjoyable to us.

As we grow authority is given to our bosses, parents, doctors, clergy, or anyone you have decided has more book knowledge that you on a subject. You live within the limitations of beliefs like “suffering, working hard and struggle is part of being a good citizen. The more you struggle the more you are respected, even loved. Do the “right” thing or you are “wrong””

Oddly, those who hold the power over you often have far greater freedoms. The very belief system that you are agreeing to has allowed you to be safe and survive up until this point now has become the very thing that keeps you enslaved to your job, duties and therefore limits your expression and abilities. While following the guidance of authority and staying within the lines you will never allow yourself to rise to a position of authority yourself. Not even in your own life choices. One of the many things that keeps us stuck where we are, trapped under authority is the accumulation of suffering while willingly submitting to the position of doing what we are told.

Let it be noted…In the initial study, the authority’s status and power was maximized—the experimenter had been introduced as a respected scientist at a respected university. However, in replications of the study in which the experimenter’s authority was decreased, obedience also declined. In one replication the status of the experimenter was reduced by having the experiment take place in a building located in Bridgeport, Connecticut, rather than at the labs on the Yale University campus, and the research was ostensibly sponsored by a private commercial research firm instead of by the university. In this study, less obedience was observed (only 48% of the participants delivered the maximum shock). Full obedience was also reduced (to 20%) when the experimenter’s ability to express his authority was limited by having him sit in an adjoining room and communicate to the teacher by telephone. And when the experimenter left the room and had another student (actually a confederate) give the instructions for him, obedience was also reduced to 20%.

In addition to the role of authority, Milgram’s studies also confirmed the role of unanimity in producing obedience. When another research participant (again an experimental confederate) began by giving the shocks but then later refused to continue and the participant was asked to take over, only 10% were obedient. And if two experimenters were present but only one proposed shocking while the other argued for stopping the shocks, all the research participants

took the more benevolent advice and did not shock. But perhaps most telling were the studies in which Milgram allowed the participants to choose their own shock levels or in which one of the experimenters suggested that they should not actually use the shock machine. In these situations, there was virtually no shocking. These conditions show that people do not like to harm others, and when given a choice they will not. On the other hand, the social situation can create powerful, and potentially deadly, social influence.

One final note about Milgram’s studies: Although Milgram explicitly focused on the situational factors that led to greater obedience, these have been found to interact with certain personality characteristics (yet another example of a person-situation interaction). Specifically, authoritarianism (a tendency to prefer things to be simple rather than complex and to hold traditional values), conscientiousness (a tendency to be responsible, orderly, and dependable), and agreeableness (a tendency to be good natured, cooperative, and trusting) are all related to higher levels of obedience whereas higher moral reasoning (the manner in which one makes ethical judgments) and social intelligence (an ability to develop a clear perception of the situation using situational cues) both predict resistance to the demands of the authority figure (Bègue et al., 2014; Blass, 1991).

Conformity and obedience are not the same thing. While both are forms of social influence, we most often tend to conform to our peers, whereas we obey those in positions of authority. Furthermore, the pressure to conform tends to be implicit, whereas the order to obey is typically rather explicit. And finally, whereas people don’t like admitting to having conformed (especially via normative social influence), they will more readily point to the authority figure as the source of their actions (especially when they have done something they are embarrassed or ashamed of).



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